There’s been a meme going around that I’ve been enjoying, where people post the lists of books that they’ve read over the last year. Thanks to Goodreads, which I am not always the best about updating, I have a decent record this year of the books that I read. Some I’ve even managed to write reviews about here, though I intended to do more of that than I actually did. Maybe I’ll do better this coming year.
Although I have always been a constant reader, a few years back I realized that I wasn’t reading very many novels beyond the easy beach read fiction — just a cavalcade of novels that weren’t different enough from one another for me to even bother to learn the title or remember the author. I decided to start tracking what I read and to make an attempt to read a larger variety of fiction. I was beginning to take my writing a lot more seriously, so reading a larger variety of authors felt like the least I could do to improve my writing. Although I only have twenty-three books on my 2013 list (after all, I was doing a lot of writing of my own), the variety I was looking for seems to be there, with a decent smattering of old and new, fantasy, fiction and non.
A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin
A Storm of Swords, George R. R. Martin
A Feast of Crows, George R. R. Martin
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
I actually began the year with A Game of Thrones and was immediately immersed into Martin’s world, which is rich, vivid and filled with an insane variety of complex characters. Martin focuses on the interaction of characters above glorification of the fantasy world and he keeps his magic simple, vague and a relatively small part of the plot. By doing that, he avoids that trap that so many fantasy authors seem to fall into where the writing becomes about the laws of the world and not the people moving around in it. He has an amazing way with characters and I’m hoping that I’m learning a lot from reading his work. When I reached the end of A Game of Thrones, I was so emotionally invested in what happened to the characters that I loved that I had to take some time off to mourn before launching into A Clash of Kings. Although I was disappointed with the direction that A Feast with Crows took, I’m reading A Dance with Dragons now and am looking forward to seeing the end of this incredibly rich saga.
I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman in nearly one sitting. I thought the beginning of the book was particularly beautiful and I enjoyed the imaginative archetypical world that Gaiman always delivers. It is a very different sort of book from the Song of Ice and Fire series, with characters that are much more distant, but Gaiman is always a solid read. Yet, if I had to pick a favorite book of his, it would probably still be The Graveyard Book.
Dear Life, Alice Munro
I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle
My Soul to Take, Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Jar City, Arnoldur Indridsson
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
Alias Dragonfly, Jane Singer
The Stand, Stephen King
In the Woods, Tana French
The Likeness, Tana French
I should really retitle this the fiction & mystery section, as I apparently read a lot more mystery this year than usual. I don’t usually go for the crime and mystery genre, but I read In the Woods on the recommendation of a friend early in the year and it seems to have kicked off a certain interest. French’s novels are deeply character driven, which is an important factor for me in my investment in a novel, and I fell in love with her lyrical and rhythmic prose. I enjoyed The Likeness even more than In the Woods and need to get back to reading the rest of the series.
Other bright lights in this section were Dear Life, The Stand and I See By My Outfit. The Stand was the first Stephen King novel I had ever read, due to a certain bigotry towards the horror genre, and I was deeply, deeply impressed with his characterization. I particularly admired his ability to get inside the head of a slightly mad character and explore the reasons for the character’s behavior in a way in which the reader can sympathize with the character. It reminds me of what George R. R. Martin does with some of his characters, who do repulsive things, yet manage to become sympathetic characters. Alice Munro places her characters solidly in a world that’s much closer to reality than either King or Martin, but she also writes about moral ambiguity, creating stories that explore the complexity of human behavior.
I See By My Outfit is more difficult to describe. On the surface, it is the story of a road journey that two friends take from New York to California on motor scooters. It was recommended to me by one of my motorcyclist friends when I bought my scooter and I was expecting something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I tried years ago, but never got very far with), but was utterly blown over by the poetic and loving descriptions of strangers and friendship that fill the chapters. I read this one very slowly, savoring each chapter for the beauty of the language and the flavor it left on my tongue. Beagle is a New Yorker; the rhythm that fills the speech of the natives here comes out as poetry in his writing.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
The Colossus and Other Poems, Sylvia Plath
Three of the four books here were related to classwork that I was doing. I’m certain I probably reread at least one Jane Austen novel through the year, which I undoubtedly enjoyed more than any of them. (Yes – I tried to originally write about The Mysteries of Udolpho and Northanger Abbey for the paper I was writing, so that must be true.) Yet while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Turn of the Screw, I emerged from them with deeper respect and appreciation for both James and Radcliffe, who both wrote about psychology, though they did it in remarkably different ways. From the perspective of reading a wider variety of writing styles and genres, all of these reads were helpful. Although I loathed Heart of Darkness with all of the loathing in my loathsome heart, there is even something to be said for the aloof narrative style that Conrad used to describe horror and inhumanity.
The Flesh Made Word, Helena Mitchie
The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter
Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock
Women in the Viking Age, Judith Jesch
On Fiction, Stephen King
My nonfiction reading was all done this year to support my writing, but that doesn’t at all mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. I’m pretty sure there’s a fair amount that should be here that never made it to Goodreads, because it didn’t occur to me that those books belong there too. But of the four that did make it to my list making, I enjoyed The Female Malady the most. There’s a certain theme to all of my non-fiction reading, which was how women interacted with their worlds in the past, but The Female Malady combined that with early psychology and the beginnings of the institution. Simply fascinating material, presented in a really readable format. All of the books covered fascinating subjects, but The Female Malady was the best read. I found that I really enjoyed the nonfiction works on my list more than I thought I would — nonfiction can have a reputation for being dry and factual, but a good writer can make it come alive.
This leaves me, in January, with a fresh slate for a new reading list. I can’t help but notice that I currently have over a hundred books downloaded to my Kindle, which would take me over five years to read if I keep reading novels at the pace I showed this year. This year I am trying to focus my efforts a little better, so maybe it’s time to chomp through that list a little faster. That should be easier with tomes like The Stand and most of the Song of Ice and Fire series behind me…